Hymns on the Train: Christian Vocabulary, Generations, and an Amtrak
This morning on the Amtrak to Chicago, I shared my car with a group of Amish families including about a half-dozen children. A four-hour drive starting at 6am, most of the car stayed quiet for the first few hours with just a little murmuring and a few stories read aloud on the seats in front of me. During the last hour, though, the children began to sing. Whispery voices sang 3, 4, 5 verses Fairest Lord Jesus, O for a Thousand Tongues, and Amazing Grace in imperfect harmony.
My seat-mate, whom I had just met at the luggage rack, turned toward me
“When was the last time you heard children sing?” “Well, my career is with children at church…” “It’s just so beautiful, so simple. We don’t have any children at my church.”
I lost my words at that last bit. What is a church family without children?
While she reflected on the presence of children, I considered the community that formed them. I don’t know a whole lot about Amish communities, and as much as I enjoy living simply in some things, I enjoy the connection, efficiency, (and even simplicity) technology brings to my life. Young children (I’m guessing the oldest here was 7 or 8) don’t learn all the verses to hymns by sitting in a church service once a week with a hymnal, their little impromptu concert purely for their own enjoyment grew out of continual exposure to hymns over time.
I’m not really interested in putting together a curriculum for “8-Weeks to Teach Kids Hymns”, but my observations challenged me to reconsider the preemptive vocabulary children from my congregation are equipped with through song, memorization, and story. These children sang songs they enjoyed, and these songs included verses about trials, death and eternal life. Even if they don’t know the depth of these truths now, the lyrics equip them with the words and art to express the depths of joy and pain of life.
In Teaching Godly Play, Jerome Berryman teaches extensively about the goal of the storyteller to equip children with Christian language to express their experienced spiritual formation. Many people carefully, imaginatively consider and reform the ways this works its way out in churches across the globe. As we move forward with new ways, the children on the train encourage me to also hold on to traditional ways, like singing. No children’s ministry program can sing with children as they complete chores, meals, and train rides, but congregations together can equip families and communities across generations to reconsider the role of music as a great catechetical tool.